A few reflections on Dale Farm and Gypsy Travellers

Yesterday the Guardian reported that a landowner in Stowmarket was making available 10 pitches for Travellers evicted from the Dale Farm in Essex. The site along Combs Lane is adajacent to the Museum of East Anglian Life’s nature reserve.

Dale Farm has become a cause celebre in the debates regarding the provision of traveller sites. The saga appears to have come to a head. Yesterdays High Court decision accepted that Basildon Council could evict families from a portion of the Dale Farm site. The site in question is home to over 800 people and has two parts. The original half was developed with planning permission and another half developed without. The whole site is owned by traveller families but a portion is just inside ‘green belt’ and attempts to gain retrospective planning permission have been unsuccessful.

Basildon Council is entitled to close down half the site and have stated that the groups of travellers have not developed it within the Law. It has offered to find alternative accommodation for those evicted in line with its homelessness strategy. It is not surprising that some Travellers ignore planning regulation when 80-90 % of applications from Traveller families are turned down, mostly due to objections from local people who don’t want them in their area.

Until the last 20-30 years, Gypsy and Traveller lifestyles fitted into the rhythm of the seasons and local life. In East Anglia they provided much of the itinerant labour for the wheat or fruit harvest. Before all road repairs were hived out to large scale contractors, small companies would take on seasonal labour (many from the Gypsy Traveller community) to assist with laying tarmac. Today with seasonal employment almost non-existent and there is a greater disconnect between Gypsy Traveller and settled community than ever before. Health and education outcomes are poorer with life expectancy of Travellers 10 years below the national average.

The decision to evict families from Dale Farm ironically co-incides with a government proposal to loosen the planning laws regarding the green belt. The National Planning Policy Framework white paper proposes to replace rural planning restrictions with “a presumption in favour of sustainable development”. What could be more sustainable than a community with strong, supportive families living within a locality, having established their own  ammenities such as a chapel and a youth club.

The total costs of closing half of Dale Farm will be close to £8 million and over 500 people are likely to be dispersed around East Anglia.

The Museum’s new displays in Abbot’s Hall will be themed around home and belonging in East Anglia. In one of the rooms we hope to feature the work of Delaine Lebas an artist of Romany heritage who exhibited in the first Roma Pavillion at the Venice Bienale in 2007. Her work combines embroidery, painting and decoupage/”femmage” with sculpture and installations that reflect domestic claustrophobia, and the tensions that characterise her own experience as a Gypsy.

Delaine’s work, and indeed the recent experiences on Dale Farm, show that despite our highly mobile society where individuals move like atoms looking for roots, there is little sympathy for large groups of Travelling families trying to do just that.

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